Control: Advocacy Advertising and Public Relations
By Marc H. Rosenberg
The Washington Post
October 10, 2002
At the Washington Post, we are very much aware
of the growth in public policy advertising. As
perhaps the world's largest marketplace for this,
we try to be not just in front of it but in the
middle of it as well.
What we are going to discuss today is the role
of paid advertising in the public policy dialogue.
I know folks in this room are all hoping to be
part of that public dialogue about issues, about
the world. And whether you're going to be reporting
for a news organization, conveying information
in the public relations world, working for the
government in an information capacity or maybe
mucking about in the advertising business
of it is about communications. So what we are
going to talk about today is where paid advertising
fits into that picture and specifically where
advocacy advertising comes into play.
There is a growing convergence -- I used to say
a coming convergence, but it's now a growing convergence
-- between advertising which is sometimes referred
to as paid media and public relations which is
euphemistically referred to as earned media.
(You know, I thought about this the other day.
How come the public relations business gets a
better euphemism? And then I realized, well, that's
public relations.) Anyway they come together in
the advocacy arena.
Let me explain. I used to go out and give speeches
to public relations types explaining the interplay
between paid media and earned media. I don't have
to do that anymore. It's not necessary because
they've got it now. There are lots of examples.
I'm going to give you some great examples from
the pages of The Washington Post and from other
newspapers where the earned media and the paid
media work very, very closely together.
I am not here to tell you that the only way to
go is advertising. Obviously, I am fond of that
medium. I earn a living in it. But I don't believe
in relying solely on just one way of reaching
the public. Any one single medium has its advantages
and its disadvantages. I think that any good public
communications campaign really must use multiple
media. Obviously, you're going to be constrained
by whatever the resources are that are available
to you, but to the extent that you have the resources,
you are a fool if you are not using multiple channels
Paid media and earned media do not compete with
each other. They complement each other. We will
be looking at some examples of successful campaigns
where the two work together. But first, I am going
to review the risks of the old school of public
relations, the risk of relying solely on earned
Problems with Earned Media
Here is the fundamental problem: the news hole
is tight and getting tighter all the time. I've
been saying this for maybe five years, and it's
still true. It's still tight, and it's still getting
tighter. There are fewer minutes devoted to real
news on television.
Turn on your TV news program. You've got commercials,
weather, sports, lottery results, soft features,
human interest stories
Some dog gets caught
in a well someplace, and there's three minutes
of news. There are fewer and fewer minutes of
television that are left for actual reporting
Similarly, newspapers shrink. First, they shrank
back in the mid 90s. They have temporarily shrunk
again due to slumps in advertising revenue. But
more importantly, the number of stories that are
covered has shrunk. Not just the size of the paper
but the number of stories on the news budget has
Major newspapers are evolving. They have learned
that they really cannot compete against broadcast,
or against the Internet to break news. If the
story is happening at 3 o'clock in the afternoon,
you do not wait until the next morning's newspaper
to find out about that story. So the major newspapers
have evolved in recent years to where their major
focus -- where they put their big resources --
is on explaining the news, investigating stories,
doing big feature length explorations of things.
That's what they get awards for; that's what readers
come to them for.
The consequence of this is that newspapers are
perhaps printing the same number of column inches,
but they are covering fewer stories. Those stories
that they cover they do in much greater depth.
If you are out there trying to get your story
into the paper, there are fewer opportunities
for you because there are that many fewer different
stories that they cover nowadays. That's the bottom
line. Fewer stories get into the newspaper and
there is much more competition for the news space
The second problem with relying on earned media
is that there are an infinite number of external
factors beyond your control. I refer to this as
the risk of sudden death. You may have a compelling
news story. You can be putting on the world's
best press conference. You can follow the textbook
to the letter on how to run a successful press
conference. Every news organization in town is
promising to come.
But you are still at the mercy of a natural disaster,
a terrorist attack, some lunatic gunman going
nuts in the suburbs, or some sex scandal involving
one or more interns.
It brings you right back to the original problem,
competition for space and attention.
Your press conference will lose out to sex or
violence any day. I guarantee it.
Monica Lewinsky, Chandra Levy, those stories
devastated the local PR industry. The terrorist
attacks on 9/11, homeland security, these will
eclipse almost anything else on the agenda. And
you cannot predict when the next incident will
occur. There is a chance that it will happen on
the day that you are holding your press conference
or the day it was supposed to be in the paper.
The third problem: The news media have a very
short attention span. There is nothing worse than
old news. This sometimes works to your advantage,
if it's a story that's been out there for a while
and they have already covered the top of the story,
and it's still got legs. I'll give you as an example
the health care debate in this country which went
on for several years during the Clinton administration.
It would disappear for a while, then somebody
would be turned away by an HMO and the story came
A story like that which goes on for a long, long
time is very difficult for the news media to handle.
It might be to your advantage if you are somewhere
below the headline level of that story and at
some point they're looking to refresh it. They
want a new angle, and you come along and you've
got some little nuance.
A more likely scenario, though, is that the issue
is still there and your client still has that
problem, that issue. The news media just don't
want to talk to you anymore.
They've done that story already. They've been
there. They've done that. They've written about
it. They want to move on. They want something
new. They want something fresh.
And so when you come in to talk to the editor
about your issue which has not been resolved yet
well, you know how it is.
Let's take, for example, Social Security. Have
you heard anything about the Social Security Trust
Fund lately? Has that problem been solved? And
yet if you go in to talk to an editor about that
story, what response do you get? Well, didn't
they give you 30 seconds on that last week? Didn't
that story run in the Metro Section a month ago?
You want them to do it again, but the phrase
"old news" keeps popping up.
Fourth problem: If you rely solely on earned
media coverage, you run the risk that reporters
and editors may not share your opinion about the
significance of your story. This will come as
a shock to some of you. It certainly comes as
a shock to many clients that their story is not
the most important item of the day, because to
them it is.
However, what is the most important story in
your life may not be a big deal to an editor,
particularly if we go back to my original point
which is the competition for the news hole. No
matter how important that story is to you, it
may not be as important as whatever else is on
the editor's desk at that moment. There is always
someone else competing for the reporter's attention,
for air time, and for a portion of the paper.
Relative importance determines not only what
gets covered, it also determines how and where.
So there is no guarantee even when the reporter
comes out and records the story. There is no guarantee
that it's going to be on the front page or at
the top of the hour or even that it will run on
the day that you think it's going to run.
The fifth factor you need to keep in mind as
you're thinking about earned media is that your
message can get garbled. The story may not come
out the way you had planned. Reporters come to
the event to cover the story. They may or may
not write what you say. They may not report it
the way you said it. And maybe the protesters
out on the street in front of your press conference
turn out to be a more interesting story or better
video than what you have to say. You might become
a sidebar to somebody else's story.
So, you've held the press conference. You've
issued the press release. It's out of your hands
at that point. Now, I understand you have lecturers
coming in here who are gurus of public relations.
They tend to view this as sort of the Great Creator
They have these great ideas like they're the
Cosmic Clockmaker and they set events in motion
and watch them unfold.
Personally, rather than the Great Creator or
the Clockmaker, I prefer the paper airplane model.
That is, you take the press release and you fold
it up into a paper airplane and sail it out the
window and it goes where it goes. You really don't
have much control over it after it has left your
Control, Control, Control
Okay, now, let me make the case for using paid
media, also known as advertising. In real estate,
there are three factors that determine the value
of your property. They are location, location
and location. In advertising, there are three
factors that determine the value of the paid media.
They are control, control and control.
You control what you say in the message. It's
your ad. You can put what you want in that ad
and it says it just the way you want it to. You
have control over where and when the message appears.
If you want it up front in the newspaper, in a
prominent position to make news, just tell us.
We'll quote you a price and you can have it. You
get control over how often and for how long the
message is delivered. And this is a really crucial
difference versus earned media. If you've got
a message and an issue and you want that message
to stay out there during the lifetime of the issue,
there really is no effective alternative to paid
media. That's how you keep it in the forefront
day after day, week after week, month after month.
The news media deliver two different streams
of messages simultaneously to the same audience.
You should always keep this in mind. If you have
news coverage produced by the reporters and editors;
that's the earned media coverage that you hope
to get. And you have advertisements which are
paid messages that are delivered through exactly
the same means to exactly the same audience that
news is reaching.
One channel is speculative. You hope that the
reporters will come to the press conference. You
hope the editors will give prominence to your
story. You hope that they will run it the day
you intended. The other channel you have complete
Why would you limit yourself to one when you
can have both?
There is an interesting phenomenon that occurs,
and this is what we're really going to focus on
today. That is the interaction between the two
channels, between the earned media and the paid
media. Let's talk now about how a well-designed,
highimpact ad or advertising campaign can itself
make news. Paid media can earn free media. It
will generate news coverage for you. Advocacy
advertising is a wonderful place to observe this
because it really has to be very focused, very
refined, and cost effective. I'm going to show
you some interesting examples of it.
So let's talk for a moment about advocacy advertising.
It really got started in earnest back in the 1970s.
Mobil Oil ran public policy ads back in the 70s.
A guy named Herb Schmertz was the legendary head
of communications for Mobil Oil Company.
During the energy crisis at that time, Mobil
was frustrated. Their message just wasn't getting
Why? Well, they were just another oil company.
You could get a quote from any one of a dozen
oil companies. If you ran a quote from Texaco,
you didn't need a quote from Mobil. Also, there
were lots of other voices out there. The government
had its opinions about the energy crisis, consumer
groups had theirs. Everybody had opinions.
So Mobil was just one more voice out there. They
were having trouble getting a consistent message
out to the media and the public. And then, it
finally dawned on Herb Schmertz: "Why not
just buy a piece of the newspaper whenever we
have something to say, and by gosh, we'll say
it. It'll be there in the paper just the way we
want it to be."
And that was the first advertorial campaign.
Mobil Oil, starting in the 1970s.
It's always difficult for us on the advertising
sales side to assess the impact of a campaign
because we never know exactly what the client
wants to achieve. We don't always know what they
hope to accomplish or what their secret agenda
may be. Usually what we'll say to them is, "We'll
deliver the audience, you deliver the message."
If we don't even know what it is the advertiser
wants to have happen, it's hard to tell whether
it's working or not.
One indicator of whether the Mobil campaign worked
was that it first ran in the 1970s. It continues
today. In fact, Mobil was acquired by Exxon two
years ago and we now have ExxonMobil advertorials
running every other week in The Washington Post.
I'm not saying that Exxon bought Mobil just so
that they could acquire the campaign, but clearly
somebody in that company believes that this continues
to fulfill a communications need.
The advertorial style that Mobil started also
lives on, not just in the ExxonMobil campaign,
but over the years we had other advertorial campaigns,
very similar quarter page units from other companies
speaking their minds. Microsoft, MCI, EDS
The Electronic Data Systems company has a very
successful, very discreet campaign that they've
run over the years.
Currently on the pages of The Washington Post,
the American Federation of Teachers runs an advertorial
column once a month. The Educational Testing Service
runs an advertorial campaign. Dearest to our hearts,
the National Education Association has been using
our Sunday Outlook section for 15 years to run
quarter page advertorials on a regular, consistent
basis. Corporate America and major advocacy organizations
seem convinced that this works.
So, 20 years after Herb Schmertz, we are into
the 90s. 1993 really is a watershed year. It's
a year when public policy advertising came of
age, not necessarily because that's the year that
I got into the business, but more likely because
the Health Insurance Association of America decided
to respond to the Clinton administration's health
This was a period when, from the perspective
of the health insurance industry, our country
had a dangerous flirtation with socialized medicine.
They thought it necessary to save the country
from this impending evil. Who comes to the rescue?
Harry and Louise. Ten years since Harry and Louise,
and we still remember their names. Not a bad ad
Instead of insurance executives in pinstriped
suits, the insurance industry sent out as its
spokesmen a professional actor and actress who
portrayed Middle Americans sitting at their kitchen
table worrying about how government bureaucrats
are going to keep them away from their beloved
family doctor. One generation after Marcus Welby,
the memory was still there.
Most of the money that was spent on this campaign
was spent on television but they did run some
print ads, also featuring Harry and Louise.
This campaign really marked the first time that
true political techniques were used in public
policy advertising. We're talking about polling.
We're talking about focus groups. And it's not
an accident that this campaign, the Harry and
Louise campaign, was created by Goddard Clausen.
They are headquartered out in Malibu. Until this
time, they had specialized in political campaigns.
They were doing the candidates' advertising. For
this occasion they got into public policy communications,
but they brought the techniques with them from
The other interesting point about this is that
it illustrates very well the use of paid media
to stimulate news coverage. The perception is
that this was a national campaign; that Harry
and Louise were in every market; that the insurance
industry spent vast sums of money to beat down
the Clinton initiative. None of that is true.
This was not a national campaign.
The Harry and Louise campaign was run in spot
markets, in very cleverly selected markets, probably
not more than a dozen in various states. They
were chosen either because those markets were
deemed to be key political swing areas or, more
likely, because the Congressmen or Senators in
those markets held key positions in the Congress
in the upcoming legislative debate over healthcare.
What the insurance industry did with the Harry
and Louise campaign is that they took the commercials
and ran them when Congress was adjourned. Let's
say it's August when Congress goes home. If they
wanted to reach John Dingell, who was then chairman
of the House Commerce Committee, they would run
these commercials on television in Detroit because
that's where John Dingell was in August. He was
home with his constituents in Detroit.
September comes around, and he returns to Washington.
They go dark in Detroit and start running commercials
in Washington and start putting ads in The Washington
Post. And John Dingell thinks, "Oh my God,
they're everywhere. No matter where I turn, I
see those commercials."
The congressional leadership troops down to the
White House and says to the President and Hillary
-- maybe I repeat myself -- they say, "You've
got to respond.
Those commercials are everywhere. They're killing
us. You've got to do something about this."
So, what do we have? The President of the United
States in a press conference attacks these terrible
Then, as if that's not bad enough, he and Hillary
go to the Gridiron Club, get dressed up in costumes
and do a skit parodying the Harry and Louise campaign.
Now, how does the news media cover this? How do
they explain the President's behavior to the 80
or 90 percent of the public who had never seen
a Harry and Louise commercial?
Well, they have to run the Harry and Louise commercial
to explain why the President is doing these things
and responding the way he is responding.
Kathleen Hall Jamison, who is still the head
of the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania,
did a fascinating case study of the Harry and
Louise campaign. She estimated that the amount
of earned media, the ratio of earned media to
paid exposures was 15:1. I think she probably
greatly underestimated that ratio because I think
she also assumed this was national spending and
not spot market spending. Either way, that's pretty
good bang for the buck.
Okay, health care reform, that's pretty serious
business. What about Hooters, the restaurant?
They are noted for more than their hamburgers
and buns. You may have noticed if you have ever
been to one of their restaurants that you go there
and you are served by Hooters Girls. There are
no Hooters Guys serving in those restaurants.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noticed
this, too. And so in 1995 they launched an investigation
of the Hooters Restaurant chain alleging that
there was a pattern of discriminatory employment
in that they were only hiring Hooters Girls.
The owner of Hooters felt that Hooters Guys might
change the nature of their business. How so, you
might ask? In case you have no imagination, Hooters
shared with the readers of The Washington Post
their vision of the Hooters Guy complete with
hot pants, hairy legs and a tank top.
This was an earned media jackpot. Hooters followed
up the ads in The Washington Post with local press
conferences around the United States. What they
did is they organized press conferences where
they had chorus lines of Hooters Girls who were
joined by a lifesize cardboard cutout of the Hooters
Guy. You can imagine how difficult it was for
local television to resist that particular visual.
At last they had a legitimate reason to do stories
about Hooters Girls ... and Guys. You couldn't
do the story if you didn't also tell the story
of the Hooters Guy.
Now, remember, another benefit of paid media
is you have control over the timing of your message.
That's the other thing I want to talk about in
this particular case.
The ad campaign was created by the public relations
firm of Powell-Tate, which is run by two former
White House media wizards. Powell-Tate ran the
ads in late 1995 and they timed it so that the
ad would hit in the middle of the shutdown of
the United States government during the budget
impasse between Newt Gingrich and the Clinton
Reporters on the government beat were trying
to cover a government that's shut down and had
been for the previous two weeks. They were looking
for a new story.
Along comes the Hooters Guy. Guess what? Government
agencies were shut down. The Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission was unable to respond to
these ads. Not only were they unable to respond,
they were unable to answer their telephones. Their
employees would be violating the law if they were
to talk to reporters during the time when the
government was shut down and these ads are running.
The campaign ran for two weeks before there was
a federal official who was even allowed to respond
to the story. By then the news cycle had long
The story had run unopposed. The EEOC had their
brains beaten in by this ad campaign. Two years
later, the commission chairman retired from office.
He was interviewed by a news magazine and they
asked him about the highlights of his career at
EEOC; what did he accomplish and what did he regret?
He said that in his tenure at the Commission he
had only one regret and that was, he said, "I
sure wish we hadn't taken on Hooters."
Okay, speaking of sex, implied or otherwise
Do you remember Bob Packwood, the randy Senator
from Oregon? As the Senate Ethics Committee was
preparing to do their job regarding the sexual
harassment charges against him -- which is a polite
way of saying they were getting ready to bury
those charges and sweep the issue under the rug
until after the next election -- an ad appeared
on the Federal Page of The Washington Post.
This was a quarter page ad. It ran once. It ran
in only one newspaper in America. It was placed
by Mandy Grunwald, who is a political consultant,
she mostly works for Democrats and she mostly
does television. The principal text of her message
was: "If your boss stuck his tongue in your
mouth, would he keep his job? Only in the United
She placed this one ad. She got tons, I mean
tons of earned media. It was the top news story
every half hour on CNN for 24 hours. That evening
it was, if not the lead, it was a top news story
on every evening news program in America. Grunwald
was on Night Line that night with Ted Koppel.
She was on every talk show in America within a
week. Every time she went on, they showed the
ad and then asked her to talk about it.
Interestingly, the entire ad was just text, no
graphics. That was somewhat surprising to us when
it came in because we got an order for an ad from
Mandy Grunwald who was noted for the television
she creates. With her, wow, we could just imagine
what kind of visuals she was going to have about
Bob Packwood's sexual harassment charges. It turns
out that the lack of a picture works. My wife
is a psychiatrist, so I'll use a technical term.
What you had was a kind of a Rorschach test. The
viewer sees what he wants and can read into that
a great many things. Your mind fills in the blanks.
What does your boss look like? "Picture your
boss here" is what this ad says.
There was, literally, a bottom line. The text
on the bottom line said, "Join our fight.
Call Bob Dole. Demand public hearings." It
was a clear call for action. You read the ad.
You are outraged. What do you do? The ad tells
you what to do. We know that they did that because
Dole's office was besieged, just thousands of
telephone calls. At the moment, by the way, he
was getting ready to run for President of the
United States, and so he was in an unusual position.
Most Senators, if you got a call from Montana
and you are the Senator from Kansas, you know,
you'd just hang up on them. But if you're running
for President, everybody is a potential voter.
You can't hang up on them Dole had to forward
those calls to every other office in the Senate
and so the switchboard was just jammed for days.
It was a nifty trick. It was a way for him to
be acutely aware of everybody else's constituencies
on that issue. Packwood ended up leaving the Senate
in disgrace. The ad contributed greatly to that.
The ad shaped the debate, forced the debate to
happen is probably more accurate, but it also
provided the language and the terminology for
the debate. Mandy Grunwald framed the issue with
this one ad and forced every Senator to deal with
constituents who translated that into saying,
"Hey, we don't put up with that in our office,
why do you put up with it in yours?" The
answer obviously was you shouldn't.
A little less dramatic but equally provocative
we're going to talk about the Campaign for Tobacco
Free Kids. This was launched in 1996 by Bill Novelli,
who at that time was head of the Campaign for
Tobacco Free Kids. In a previous life he had been
one of the founding partners at Porter Novelli,
which is a well known public relations firm. With
that background, it's notable that this campaign
relied almost entirely on paid media when it started
and the earned media followed.
In a typical ad, the focal point was a picture
of a kid who is smoking. All their ads featured
young kids, cute kids, little girls with pigtails,
little boys with baseball caps, each of them holding
a lit cigarette. The image is jarring. It's disturbing.
You look at this, and you just know that it's
The ads start running, people go to their elected
officials, and they want to know, "What are
you doing about this?" There were some ads
on television but mostly it was a print campaign.
It went on for about six months before the White
House decided that they were going to have to
get control of this issue. It had become such
a public discourse and one where people were just
demanding, "Where is the leadership?
Where are our public officials? How are they
responding to this?" After six months of
this paid media campaign, the White House adopted
it as their own and took up the issue of underage
smoking. This is a case where the leaders were
following. What they were following was public
opinion and public opinion was driven by this
paid media campaign.
The Tobacco Free Kids ad campaign changed the
political agenda. It became one of the leading
issues in Washington for two years, through an
entire election cycle.
Ultimately, their legislative program was derailed.
It was derailed by two things. One, a counter
campaign of paid advertising that was launched
by the tobacco industry, somewhat belatedly but
But, more importantly, there was growing success
by the state attorneys general in their multi-state
litigation against the tobacco industry which
resulted in billions of dollars of damages against
the industry. It also resulted in a number of
consent decrees in which the industry agreed to
change their marketing practices, even agreed
to fund a campaign to reduce underage smoking.
So Tobacco Free Kids got high impact, terrific
leverage on their very modest media investment.
The last item I am going to discuss in depth is
another one-time ad. This one came from Larry
Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine. The
time is October 1998 and we're in the middle of
the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton.
Larry Flynt, pillar of the community, is upset
by the hypocrisy in Congress. He was shocked,
absolutely shocked, to hear the Congress taking
on the President on the basis of the President's
alleged sexual improprieties. Basically, Flynt
said, "Who are they to complain about Clinton?"
To make his point, he took out this ad in the
Washington Post. Flynt wanted people to come forward
to share with him information about illicit sexual
encounters that they may have had with members
of Congress or other high ranking public officials.
And in order to encourage that, he offered a reward
... one million dollars.
Hustler ran this ad exactly once. They ran it
only in the Washington Post. Nowhere else, no
other time. It cost them $85,000 for a full page,
front part of the newspaper. It hit you right
in the face when you opened up the Sunday paper.
At this point in the debate, the public was bored,
the reporters were bored with the impeachment
debate. Monica Lewinsky had become old news. And
then this ad appeared. It was a shot of adrenaline
to the news media. It was chum thrown into the
shark tank and the news media responded just like
Flynt knew they would.
This ad appeared on a Sunday morning. That day
on Meet the Press, Tim Russert opened the show
by holding up the ad, then directing the discussion
to talking about this ad and the implications
of the message. CNN loved this story. There wasn't
a helluva lot else happening on a Sunday morning.
They featured it for two days.
Reuters put it on the wire service on Sunday
so that it was in Monday papers across the country.
I came into the office on Monday morning and I
had a stack of telephone messages on my desk from
newspapers and television stations around the
United States: Would we please send them copies
of this ad so that they could print the ad or
show the ad on television to accompany the story
about what it was trying to accomplish? Think
Other publications calling us
asking, "Please let us run copies of that
ad at no charge so that we can then talk about
how important that ad is." Needless to say,
our client was happy.
Let me tell you another story about the shelf
life of this ad. This appeared in broadsheet,
a full newspaper page. Internally at the Post
we had to shrink it down to letter size, standard
paper size, make copies of it and distribute it
to everybody in the advertising department because
we were getting so many phone calls from all over
the United States from people who had heard about
the ad but, of course, they didn't get The Washington
Post in their market. They couldn't read the ad.
They wanted to know could we please share with
them conditions of the offer, the telephone number,
how do they get this reward, etc., etc.
Obviously, Flynt got his money's worth. Does
anybody here remember Speaker of the House Bob
Livingston? He never quite made it to his new
office because in between being elected Speaker
and taking office, Larry Flynt published this
ad. Mr. Livingston decided to resign. Enough said?
Speaking of the Clinton impeachment trial, here
is my personal favorite item.
Just before the Senate vote, The Wall Street
Journal bought a full page ad in The Washington
Post. In that ad they reprinted excerpts of their
many editorials about the Clinton scandal and
their views on impeachment. That ad ran on February
That same day the New York Times ran a story
that was headlined "The Wall Street Journal's
Washington Appeal." The Wall Street Journal
writes editorials. They then condense them, reproduce
them and -- wanting to make sure that the timing
is just right, the audience is just right -- they
take the Wall Street Journal editorials, pay to
have them published as an ad in the Washington
Post and then sit back and watch the New York
Times write a story about their ad. It doesn't
get any better than this. This is the trifecta.
But this is all ancient history. Let me give
you some recent examples of ads that generate
news coverage. I knew some weeks ago that I would
come speak here and so I decided I should pull
some recent examples out of the papers. You can
tell these are recent examples, because the clippings
haven't turned yellow yet.
First of all, we are in the middle of political
campaigns. All of you, as sentient human beings,
hopefully you are aware that there are political
ads being run in this community. Those ads in
many cases are the focal point of news coverage
about the campaign. I am not going to bore you
with the infinite number of examples that occur.
I'll just give you two.
Here is the Washington Post, September 3, which
runs a headline in the Metro section that says,
"Glendening Ads Paint Schaefer as Bigot."
This one happens to be my favorite here because
Glendening is the retiring governor of Maryland.
He uses his leftover campaign funds from his own
election to pay for ads attacking the incumbent
comptroller of the state of Maryland. And they're
in the same party!
The next day, September 4, The New York Times
in their main news section has a headline that
reads "Candidates Ads Responding to Public
Insecurity" and they devote a half page of
the front section of the paper to analyzing how
various candidates for the House of Representative
and Senate are addressing the homeland security
issue in their paid advertising.
Let me give you a few other examples here. On
August 27, in the Wall Street Journal (again,
the main news section on page 4) the headline
says, "U.S. Chamber of Commerce Takes Its
Tort Overhaul Campaign to Television." A
nice quarter-page story about the upcoming campaign
the Chamber of Commerce is planning to run. It's
all about paid advertising.
In The Washington Post the next day, August 28,
this time on page 2, we have a story that says
"Infertility Campaign Cannot Get Ad Space."
It talks all about a campaign that deals with
issues having to do with fertility. Someone is
attempting to run ads in movie theaters in San
Francisco, Boston and the District of Columbia
and it discusses the ads and the issues surrounding
the campaign that they are attempting to run.
We'll fast forward to September 24. But, I'm getting
ahead of myself. Let's look instead at August
14. The Hill is a Capitol Hill tabloid. It covers
politics and on page 3 here in what seems to be
an obscure story, it says "Representative
Boehner Finds Little Respite as Right to Work
Pressures Him," and they describe how the
National Right to Work Committee is trying to
get a chairman of a House committee to take action
on a labor issue in Congress. They are doing that
by running ads in his hometown district, and then
the article says they are going to be running
these ads in Washington when Congress comes back
in session. So they're following the Harry and
Louise model, running first in local markets and
then Washington, D.C.
And lo and behold, here we are a month later,
September 24, and The Washington Post carries
this big ad on page 5 which says "Tell Congress
That Union Violence Against Hard Working Americans
Must Stop." This is the campaign that was
referenced in the article that ran a full month
before. So talk about being able to stretch out
your campaign. Here they're getting ink a month
before they've spent their first dollar on paid
placement of the ad in Washington.
That same campaign, by the way, was also referenced
in an article in The Washington Post on the front
page of our Business section on the 21st. That
was five days before the ad actually appeared
And then we have a double-header on September
26. We had The Washington Post and The New York
Times both carrying stories reporting on a series
of ads that are coming out from music industry
stars. The headline says "Stars Come Out
Against Net Music Piracy"
Here's another New York Times story, this one
on the front page of the Business section on October
9. The headline: "Viacom Plans Ad Campaign
on AIDS." It jumps to page 4 where they devote
an entire half page here. This is really interesting.
This is a half-page devoted to a public service
campaign of unpaid ads. Viacom is going to be
using unsold commercial space in their various
media, particularly broadcast but also billboards,
to convey their corporate concern about AIDS and
to promote their AIDS awareness campaign. Their
unpaid ads are earning media coverage. Here it's
a half a page in the New York Times. Pretty good.
Standards of Acceptance
Okay, let's change the subject slightly and talk
about standards of acceptance.
Are there any ads that we would not accept at
the Washington Post? Yes, there are.
We do routinely check ads. Obviously it is in
our best interest to come to terms with the advertiser.
It is in their best interest to come to terms
with us. So in most cases we do resolve these
differences. But there are times when we finally
conclude, no, we will not take that ad. This happens
with some frequency.
What are the standards that we apply and how
do we apply them? Well, first of all, we try to
be very straightforward about this. There's nothing
tricky about any of the standards that we apply.
The first one is that it must be clear who placed
the ad and how the reader can reach that organization
or that individual. This is our number one rule.
It also is the one that is most frequently violated.
Usually not consciously, but sometimes.
The philosophy that we hold to very, very strongly
is it's your opinion and you're entitled to express
your opinion, but the readers are entitled to
know who you are and perhaps why you are expressing
the particular opinion you have. It's easier for
our readers to understand what you're saying if
they know who you are.
We also require that readers be able to get in
touch with the authors of a particular advocacy
ad, partly because we want to get out of the middle.
We don't want them complaining to us if they're
not happy with the message in the ad. We'd rather
that they complain to whoever wrote the ad.
Where we most often go astray here is organizations
that are used to speaking to themselves or used
to operating within a fairly close knit group
who then have to speak to the general public.
Sometimes they don't make that transition well.
So we end up with an ad from a union that says
it was placed by Local 239. Local 239 of what?
Usually when we call up an advertiser like that
and we say we think they ought to put the other
half of their name in the ad, they will immediately
comply. But there are times when we hear from
some coalition that didn't exist a week before
they called us and will not exist a week after
the ad runs. They would dearly love to get this
message in the paper and they sure hope that nobody
knows who put it there. Those are cases where
we do some counseling with them and point out
if they're going to obscure the origin of the
ad; it isn't going to make it into the paper.
The second standard that applies is that the
ad cannot be confused with news. It has to look
different. It has to be clearly labeled so that
the reader who is looking at the page can tell
the difference between what The Washington Post
news or editorial staff put in the paper versus
what the advertiser puts in the paper. This gets
back to the concept of two different channels
that are operating side by side, and it has to
be clear to our readers which channel you are
Again, it's a pretty straightforward requirement.
A few times we have encountered an advertiser
who has been absolutely adamant that they won't
change the ad to look less like news and they
won't let us put a label on it identifying it
as advertising. Generally those have been times
where we think that they're deliberately trying
to confuse our readers, and we don't tolerate
that. So, again, we can either come to an agreement
pretty quickly, or it becomes evident pretty quickly
that that ad is just not going to run.
The third standard that is applied is that we
impose the same rules for content on our advertisers
as we do on ourselves. What this means is that
we will not let an advertiser use language that
we would not publish if our own reporters wrote
it. We would not let advertisers use pictures
or images in an ad that we would not allow on
our news pages.
I will give you a real clear example of this.
It came up a few years ago. The former Yugoslavia
was in continuing turmoil and there was a debate
over whether or not the United States would intervene
in Kosovo to stop the slaughter of Kosovars there.
We were approached by a group here in America
representing some expatriate Kosovars who had
come into possession of photographs of a village
after a slaughter had occurred there. And they
wanted to take out a 2-page spread in our paper
to share with the world this evidence of an atrocity
that had occurred.
We took those pictures to our newsroom and said,
"Set aside any issue of credibility. Let's
assume our own photographer had stood there and
taken those pictures. Would we run these pictures
with detailed close-ups of very dead people and
put that in our newspaper?" The answer was,
no, we would not. It just did not meet the standards
we imposed on ourselves for publication in the
We went back to the advertiser and explained
to them that we wouldn't run those pictures. The
message was fine. We would give them the placement
they wanted, but they had to find alternative
They chose not to do that, not to change their
ad. They ran it in a different newspaper. At the
end of the day, at The Washington Post, everybody
said, okay, it's their choice. But it was our
choice, too. Our choice was to walk away from
that ad because it did not meet our standards
for what we would publish. The fourth item is:
whatever is in the ad must be accurate. We are
going to give a considerable amount of leeway
when the advertiser is clearly identified and
has a clear point of view that they are expressing
as their own opinion. When it comes to opinion
we give them lots of leeway. When it comes to
the information that they've generated out of
their own research, we tend to give them the benefit
of the doubt. If they say they conducted a study,
and the study found whatever, if their name is
on it readers can figure out what their point
of view is.
However, if they are quoting someone else, if
they are presenting information as established
facts, then we will ask for documentation. We
will ask to see copies of the documents that are
quoted. If they say their opponents said something
in a press conference, we will ask to see a transcript
or the videotape, some evidence that it happened.
First and foremost is the legal issue of libel.
Our lawyers don't want us to be party to a libel,
to a known falsehood. Second, there is an obligation
to our readers. If it appears in our paper, there
is a certain amount of credibility that we impart
on whatever we put in front of our readers. And
we want to make certain that what's being published
is accurate. If something is presented as a fact,
we do go to some length to establish that the
fact actually is so.
Finally, point five, we have what's called the
Breakfast Table Test which gets to that very vague
and ill defined area known as taste. Not the taste
of your cereal at breakfast but the taste that
we show in publishing certain things. The Washington
Post is in fact a family newspaper. Its circulation
is primarily home delivery.
We do understand and we do expect that most of
our readers have their first contact with the
newspaper at their breakfast table in the morning,
and we are sensitive to what we put in front of
them while they are eating their cereal. And so
there are times when we will say to an advertiser,
"We're sorry. We're just not going to put
that on somebody's breakfast table in the morning."
This is kind of a vaguely defined area and it
leads to differences of opinion with other newspapers.
Just to cite one example, the Wall Street Journal,
for instance, generally is not home delivered,
is not a breakfast table newspaper, and their
standards for publication will be different in
this area than ours.
The New York Times -- probably you are aware
that in the Washington Post we run a series of
ads called Sex for Life which generates some reader
feedback to us; if you look in the New York Times,
those ads sometimes run with a different illustration.
When the original illustration was submitted,
we said, "Sorry, you can keep the headline
but that illustration just isn't going to appear
in our newspaper." So you will see different
versions of that ad in different newspapers based
on the standards of acceptance.
We tend to be a little less tolerant on taste
questions than some other newspapers. On the other
hand, we tend to have a much higher tolerance
for political controversy than do other papers.
We believe that our readers are accustomed to
a rather vigorous political debate. And in many
ways this makes our newspaper more interesting
reading, seeing the dialogue that occurs in advocacy
advertising on public policy issues.
Many times a politically controversial ad will
run first in The Washington Post and then other
papers will check in from around the country.
Did we take that ad? What did our readers say?
How did they react?
But we don't run that kind of test. Our standards
are very clear. We do have a considerable appetite
for political controversy; less of an appetite
for questionable taste.
But as you can see, we don't reject ads just
for being edgy. We do not reject ads for being
provocative or controversial. Actually, those
are some of our favorite ads.
Marc H. Rosenberg is advocacy advertising
director at The
Washington Post. This is the transcript of
a talk he gave to the Communications Department
of American University in Washington, DC.